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Bang the TomTom Softly

Has Chancellor Palpatine given the go ahead to execute Order 66 or is the TomTom lawsuit about nothing more than GPS?

Let’s just cut to the chase, I don’t really think that Microsoft’s lawsuit against TomTom is the initial salvo in a patent war against Linux. Why? Two reasons: Who they’re going after and the economy.

First some background: Last week Microsoft filed patent infringement claims against TomTom. While the bulk of the suit concerns GPS patents, two of the claims are related to a Linux implementation of the Microsft FAT32 filesystem related to things like the “common name space for long and short filenames.” The concern being that Microsoft is laying the groundwork for an all-out assault on Linux by demonstrating that essential parts of the Linux foundation (filesystem implementation) infringe on Microsoft patents.

I’m not sure if this tactic will stand up in a court of law nor will we be finding out anytime soon. Why? Because TomTom doesn’t have the money to fight MS.

In the last quarter TomTom posted a EUR989 million loss. That’s 1.2 billion dollars in US currency; enough to concern just about any company not on the Federal government’s bailout list. This is a company that makes GPS systems that talk to you with Yoda’s voice and who’s biggest customers are car companies, which, if you haven’t heard, aren’t doing all that well. Hardly the type of company that you would target in order to wage a worldwide war against open source. This case will never see a courtroom.

I suspect that if Microsoft was going to attempt to shut Linux down, they would assemble their alleged 200+ patents that Linux infringes upon and go after the biggest fish they could so that, if they won (before solutions could pull them up short), they’d have won a decisive victory.

The FAT patents may be bulletproof but MS is not testing the strength of the GPL by going after TomTom. I suspect that the aim here is to secure GPS licensing from the company or, barring that, shut them down so MS technology can step in.

In addition to this, the timing for a war with Linux is all wrong. I’m supposed to believe Microsoft has decided — in the worst economy practically any of us has ever seen — to drop the patent hammer on Linux thereby creating doubt about nearly all technology purchases?

This is really the biggest problem with all this. Businesses are already rattled and unwilling to spend money due to the economic downturn. By starting a patent war with all things Linux, it’s not that everyone would suddenly dump Linux and run to Windows. Rather they would go into further wait-and-see mode because a patent war with Linux would take a long, long time to hash out — a rigorous attack on the GPL would take years and a successful outcome is by no means assured. And Microsoft (like it’s Linux counterparts) can ill-afford to spook any potential customers in the meantime.

I think it’s time for everyone to take a deep breath and a step back for a minute. We’re well over two years into an agreement with Novell (See My Enemy, My Partner: The Microsoft-Novell Alliance) that was, everyone assumed at the time, supposed to serve as the basis for a massive patent war. And the result of all that hand-wringing? A collective yawn (See Whither the SUSE Exodus? Novell’s Linux Business Soars) followed by, well, nothing.

If you think you need to remain vigilant (whatever that means), OK, you go right ahead and do that. Me? I’m a little tired of the all the theater and I’m going to need to see some blood drawn from that Sword of Damocles before I get excited about any of this.

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